Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Tortillas De Maiz

Where better to start!

My first trip to Mexico was a couple of years ago now (and I don’t mean that as a coy way of saying I’ve been coming here since 1955 – it was actually that, about two years ago) and coming from Ireland where a tortilla was either something Spanish related to an omelette or potatoes - I was never, and still am not certain - or a flour tortilla, the corn tortillas were a new experience.

Massa De Harina.

I’m going to skip over the whole standard nixtamalization preamble. Look it up here if you are genuinely interested, suffice to say that massa de harina rather than being a type of flour is actually dehydrated dough which you reconstitute, which I think is unusual. At some point in the future I will try using fresh masa, although if you are waiting for me to nixtamalize some dry corn and make my own masa, I’d suggest you don’t hold your breath.

Most recipes seem to work off a quantity of 2 cups. This was rather more than I would care could eat myself and I have based everything on a single cup of masa de harina. This yielded enough dough to produce six standard size tortillas of about 6” or 7” diameter, however I prefer to divide that quantity of dough into eight parts, each giving a ball of dough slightly smaller than the golf ball size which is generally suggested. This produces a slightly daintier tortilla about the size of the palm of your hand.


The conventional wisdom calls for a quantity of water less than the amount massa de harina by volume. I disregarded this advice on my first attempts, using about an equal volume of water, based on the mistaken belief that I couldn’t get a dough to come together without using more water than was suggested, and also based on what I saw the various videos on youtube of people making tortillas, where the dough seems very pliable. The problem with a very wet dough is that it is very difficult to manage after it is pressed. I found it very difficult to get it into the comal without tearing or without leaving bumps and folds in the middle, it also has a distressing tendency to stick to the plastic you use to line the tortilla press.

The best way seems to be to make a crumbly mixture and then add water a tablespoon or less at a time until the dough comes together into a single mass. The objective should be to add only enough water to bring the dough together in a ball. It should not be so dry however that it can’t be pressed without radial cracks forming in the tortilla. As a rule of thumb I would suggest not as firm a plasticine yet not as loose a putty and definitely slightly drier than you would think normal.

There is a second problem if the dough is quite wet. You will find pockets of steam forming under the tortilla and it will cook unevenly leaving doughy spots where it was lifted from contact with the heat. The firmness and comparative lack of water in a drier stiffer dough prevents this from happening.

You will see warm water suggested in some places. I can’t say I noticed any difference whether warm or cold water was used.


I used a good pinch of salt. Comparing my completed tortillas both to commercial brands and to the ones produced in the local tortilleria, mine seemed to have more salt, and were none the worse for it. In fact they had a much brighter, more pleasant taste.

Resting the dough

Occasionally you see it suggested that the dough be rested for a while before pressing and cooking. Given that there is no gluten in masa I’m not sure what is to be achieved here. I guess you could argue you are giving the grains time to hydrate but in my limited experience it made no difference.


I am now the proud owner of two tortilla presses. It actually took me some time to find one at all. The lady in the first place where I asked for one laughed in my face, whether that was my Spanish or the idea that anyone would ask for such a basic tool in her fancy establishment…

The first one is of the light aluminium type. Frankly it looks like it was cast by a blind man in dry sand. It so light I can see the hinge bend upward as I press some dough. The first batch I made with it was a complete fiasco, the tortillas were too thick and remained doughy in the middle.

I managed to buy a far stronger looking press (aluminium again, I have yet to see a cast iron model) which does a much better job. In fact with a good press you have to be careful not to press to dough too thin or you will have a hard time separating the dough from the plastic without tearing and an even harder time manipulating it on the pan.

It seems fiddly and a waste of time, but if you are using a ziplock bag to line the tortilla press it is actually worth cutting off the zip after you have opened out the bag. The zips have a tendency to stop the press from closing properly and getting the dough stuck in the zip is a nuisance too.

The other piece of advice here is to lay the ball of dough to be pressed slightly toward the hinge end of the press. The side directly opposite the hinge where the plate can actually touch will produce a tortilla which is too thin on that side.


As well as having two tortilla presses, I now have two comal. The first is a round cast iron one, it’s heavy and will in all probability outllive me. The second is the rectangular griddle type that fits across two burners of the cooker.

Both work well. The more polished surface of the griddle makes moving and getting under the tortilla to flip it easier however I am more comfortable allowing the cast iron to get blazingly hot (this is not a job you want to tackle with your expensive non stick pan unless your flatmate’s budgie really annoys you!). Also I have never been able to make a tortilla puff up on the griddle as I can on the cast iron comal, but more on this later.

The general idea in cooking the tortilla is to cook one side then the second side for slightly longer and then back to the fist side again. 30 seconds, 60 second then a final 30 seconds seem to be the most common suggestions given. This seems about right as a general guide. There are also recipes which call for a medium hot pan and a very hot pan, I’d ignore this, just get the pan as hot as you can and then work quickly and without undue hesitation and faffing about.

One of the mistaken ideas I had when I approached cooking tortillas first was that I did not want them to crispen on the outside. I was trying to achieve the same flexible, almost rubbery, texture commercial tortillas have and by cooking hard and fast I would end up with a tostada. This is not the case however because as soon as the tortilla is left rest in a tortilla warmer the steam softens it and gives it the same flexibility even if it was crisp on the outside when taken off the pan.

What you need to look for is a slight speckling of colour especially around the edge of the tortilla.

Puffing Up

I was slightly doubtful when people made the claim that the tortilla should puff up. There is no leavening in a corn tortilla, unlike in a flour tortilla, and the dough is quite dry, so it didn’t seem immediately obvious to me that they should puff up. But in fact they do.

There is a small trick to the process.

After the second turn ie when the tortilla is back on the side that first hit the pan take a clean tea towel or a scrunched up piece of paper towel and press down firmly on the centre of the tortilla, it will then, hopefully, puff up.

Storing, Warming, Keeping etc.

Those plastic tortilla warmers that every Mexican restaurant in the world seems to have work well. I like to put a piece of kitchen roll in the bottom to capture any condensation.

As they are so little trouble to make I can’t imagine the circumstances in which you would have a glut of tortillas. They keep fine in the fridge in an airtight container and can be reheated in the microwave very well.

As to freezing - I have no idea and don't care.

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